He has been the pro here for just two-and-a-half years, which contrasts sharply against the club’s course manager, Bernard Findlay, who has been tending the fairways, greens and everything else for over 30 years.
A links course’s main challenge is usually the wind and on Portstewart, where bunkering is sparse, wind is the major factor. The key question then is: What are the prevailing winds?
“Different guys have different theories,” says Neil. “My experience is that the wind comes into you from the left on the 1st tee, so not off the sea a lot of the time as you might expect. When we were designing the new 14th, Bernard said the prevailing wind is behind and from the left. That’s a westerly, north-westerly wind.”
As day one of the Irish Open concluded, that north-westerly wind was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the professionals reaped the benefits of a gentle south-westerly, with scorecards displaying a sea of red birdies. Jamie Donaldson had nine on his card, sadly countered by a bogey and a double to leave him on six-under. Even so, as the winner of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush in 2013, he must be feeling comfortable, despite a five-putt.
Today, the wind will switch to the north-west, which means holes four, six, 11, 12, and 15 are facing into it, while 5, 7, 9, 13, and 14 will have it at their back. The size of the dunes can also hide the winds and what may await an airborne ball.
“Wind swirl is limited to the second and third holes, where the dunes are a little higher but there really isn’t much,” says Neil.
As the local pro, the obvious next question is: Which are the toughest holes?
“That third hole (par three) is very tough off the tips. It’s 218 yards and the wind is rarely behind you. Generally it’s a side wind or into you. The fifth (par four) is also tough. It’s all about pin placement on a long green of some 60 yards, with trouble behind the green. Choosing the right club is tricky. On the back nine, if you get the wind into you, the 17th is a monster and you’re hitting onto a plinth-like green where there’s no room for error.”
That wasn’t the case yesterday, with the 17th giving up plenty of birdies. There were bogeys, too — and one double — but today should make it a more challenging proposition, as the wind will make the hole play longer. Longer irons will find that plinth-like green all the smaller to target.
Many of the professionals have gone out of their way to praise the course and the beauty of its location. That’s no wonder, given the setting and one of the most famous opening holes in golf, but Neil says the “sea factor” also plays a part.
“I love standing on the second tee. It’s such a dramatic hole. The first is iconic, with the views, but I’d also go with the fourth from the new back tees. It’s unbelievable, with 360- degree views. It has actually made the hole a bit easier for me as the old tees brought the bottleneck and more trouble into play.”
The extra 60 yards has allowed many of the pros to avoid the bottleneck and dogleg referred to by Neil. The hole gave up a bucket-load of birdies yesterday, though a few doubles and an ugly triple by Pep Angles suggest it is also easy to get things wrong.
It is apparent from looking at the cards of the players that scores of every number are possible at Portstewart. The colours of yellow, red, blue, and black are splashed everywhere, as if a child has gone at them with a set of crayons. A number of golfers, including Angles and Lee Westwood, will be glad there isn’t a fifth colour to denote a triple bogey.
“The biggest challenges are when the rough is up,” says Neil. “If you go into the rough in parts, it is thick and tangly. Obviously, links golf is about the wind and rough, which is our only protection… along with the few bunkers. With the heavy rains, it is thick stuff and very penal. On a calm day, the pros will probably only use their driver once or twice on the front nine. The 4th is a driver hole and the rest is about placement… but, if the wind blows, the driver will be used more and that brings the rough into play.”
The forecast suggests the winds will not pick up to any great degree so there should be some more big scores rolling in. The fans will love that.